Paying for an Abortion Was Already Hard. The COVID-19 Economic Downturn Has Made It Even Harder.

With anti-abortion state officials using COVID-19 to stop legal abortion and millions losing their jobs, abortion funds are seeing a crush of requests.

[Photo: A young, brown pregnant person holds their head in their hands.]
“If people don’t have jobs, they can’t afford to put anything towards the procedure and have to pinch pennies to get by. We have to get people their health care access, and abortion is health care,” O’Brien said. Shutterstock

For continuing coverage of how COVID-19 is affecting reproductive health, check out our Special Report.  

For people seeking abortion care, the COVID-19 pandemic has made an already difficult situation harder.

In recent weeks, millions have lost their job, and parents are struggling to afford necessary childcare as schools across the United States have closed until further notice. People are faced with abortion costs that, for most, were difficult to afford in the first place. To make matters worse, states like Texas and Oklahoma have classified abortion care as “nonessential” in their COVID-19 response.

Organizations that help cover the costs of abortion care are already seeing the grim effects of a record 3.3 million people in the United States filing for unemployment benefits and Republican state officials using the crisis to interrupt abortion access.

Yellowhammer Fund, an abortion fund based in Alabama, has heard from callers who have lost their job as wide swaths of the economy shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s upsetting to see people become more impacted by what’s going on, and one of the things that’s upsetting is not seeing a better response [from our government] because people are hurting,” Candace E.C. O’Brien, associate director of health services for Yellowhammer Fund, told Rewire.News. “We have a low-income community [that’s] being heavily impacted by the virus that don’t have the same protections as [the] middle and upper class. They don’t have the same financial security—it’s impacting their health care and will impact it in the future as the pandemic grows.”

“If people don’t have jobs, they can’t afford to put anything towards the procedure and have to pinch pennies to get by. We have to get people their health care access, and abortion is health care,” O’Brien said.

Because of the increased need Yellowhammer is seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has increased the amount of funding they provide callers and implemented a gift card program to provide more support. The gift cards will be mailed to clients and can be used anywhere, because, O’Brien said, limiting people to gas or groceries could increase the barriers they’re experiencing, and not everyone has access to a debit card or state-issued ID.

The Northwest Abortion Access Fund (NWAAF) was already seeing a high number of callers in January, something board member Nilofar Ganjaie said normally would have decreased by now. They’ve had to make changes to accommodate the skyrocketing demand by callers concerned they won’t be able to have an abortion during the pandemic.

People seeking abortion care in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska can call NWAAF’s 24/7 hotline, and  volunteers call back to assist with the cost of abortion and related travel and lodging. But because of concerns about spreading COVID-19, instead of volunteers opening their homes or driving patients to their appointments, NWAAF is reserving hotel rooms and booking transportation through rideshare apps to limit physical contact. Ganjaie pointed out the safety precautions rideshare companies have taken, adding that their organization is screening volunteers and callers for COVID-19 symptoms.

NWAAF has also struggled with providing food assistance during the COVID-19 outbreak. “We provide grocery delivery, and because delivery services are backed up three to five days, we’ve been having volunteers—and even our board of directors—deliver no-contact groceries or takeout to callers. We drop it off to where the person is staying and leave it on their doorstep,” Ganjaie told Rewire.News.

NWAAF has updated its hotline database so that it allows “hotline advocates to indicate if a caller is experiencing any additional barriers or hardship to access[ing] abortion due to the COVID-19 outbreak,” like if they need financial assistance because they’ve lost their job, or if the situation has made it harder to get to the clinic.

“Our purpose for tracking data is to adjust our plan, [because] we want to start collecting this information immediately so we can pivot [as an organization] as needed. We want to do what we can to shift our budget and allocate our money [to people seeking abortions],” Ganjaie said.

The organization also plans to provide funding assistance to people seeking abortion care in states outside the Northwest where Republican officials have suspended abortions.

Sarah Lopez, program coordinator for Fund Texas Choice (FTC), an organization that provides logistical support to Texans needing abortions, told Rewire.News that while people traveling out of state for care usually do so because of gestational limits, FTC has recently heard from people of “varying gestational ages” needing to travel because of canceled appointments. Access in Texas is already severely limited after a sweeping anti-abortion law shut down over half the state’s clinics, leaving some people 300 miles from the nearest provider.

“As of last week we haven’t been able to purchase bus tickets, but we’re still able to book flights, help with gas, and book whichever remaining hotels are open,” Lopez said. “The major effects of the crisis were kicked into full gear this week, as clinics were forced to cancel appointments. I’ve been doing my best to keep folks at ease and prepare them for out-of-state travel by maintaining that if they need to travel even further to reach a clinic, we will still help them get there.”

Lopez said she’s angry the state is using the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to “politicize health care,” but she’s “feeling so much solidarity” with her partner organizations and clinics.

“I know that it feels harder than ever to access abortion care right now, but I want folks to know that they’re not alone and they have a whole community of people rallying behind them to make sure access isn’t pushed entirely out of reach.”